IOWA CITY, Ia. — Can Iowa truly contend for an NCAA Division I wrestling championship this week?
Will the Hawkeyes be able to upset defending national champion Penn State, Big Ten champion Ohio State or the entire ranked lineup from Oklahoma State?
Ask again later, because head coach Tom Brands wouldn’t be bothered by title talk on Monday before his fourth-ranked team even made its way to St. Louis.
“I’m aware of our first-round opponents, and I don’t look too far ahead,” Brands said before practice inside Iowa’s Dan Gable Wrestling Complex.
“And our guys should not be looking too far ahead. The way that they’re wired and the way that their best wrestling has been in the past, it’s about getting ready to go each and every match. To look ahead is silly business.”
The Hawkeyes will take nine qualifiers to the NCAA Championships, with five seeded No. 5 or higher. All will attempt to advance on Thursday morning at the Scottrade Center against opponents who aren’t from top-five teams.
“It’s a three-day tournament,” Brands said. “One match at a time.”
Iowa led last year’s tournament field by placing six All-Americans on the podium at Madison Square Garden, but the team scored just 81 points and finished fifth behind Penn State (123), Oklahoma State (97.5), Ohio State (86) and Virginia Tech (82). Upsets will be necessary to crack that upper tier, especially with returning NCAA runners-up Cory Clark and Brandon Sorensen seeded fourth and fifth at their weights.
Clark already has his eye on a meeting with Ohio State’s top-ranked Nathan Tomasello. Iowa’s senior star at 133 pounds would need to reach the semifinals to try and flip Tomasello’s 5-4 win from March 5 at the Big Ten finals.
“I’m excited to come to this tournament, where there’s a good chance I’ll meet up with him again,” Clark said Monday. “I’m not really looking ahead, but if I get that opportunity, that’d be great.”
The first round of action at the NCAA Championships is set to begin at 11 a.m. on Thursday. Matches run through Saturday night’s finals, scheduled for 7 p.m. on ESPN.
Gilman gearing up as No. 1
Iowa senior Thomas Gilman has earned the right to be feeling optimistic about the 125-pound field. Top-ranked and unbeaten in the 2016-17 season, Gilman also owns a 33-2 career record against the other qualifiers.
The two losses came at the Midlands Championships to Campbell’s Nathan Kraisser — previously at North Carolina — in 2012, when Gilman was an unattached true freshman, and to Virginia Tech’s Joey Dance in 2014. Dance is currently ranked second, but Gilman topped him in the 2015 NCAA Championships.
“I’m as confident as I can be,” Gilman said Monday. “I’ve trained hard my entire life — not just this year; not just this week, but my entire life.”
Wilcke’s late addition
Redshirt freshman Cash Wilcke joined the bracket at 197 last Wednesday when West Virginia’s Jake Smith was forced to bow out due to injury. Wilcke (16-11) finished eighth at the Big Ten Championships and the conference only received seven automatic bids.
But being the next man up has given the Battle Creek native a prime chance to extend his season.
“He went forward the right way,” Brands said. “He was upset at the world and feels like some things were let down.
“Because he didn’t take off and go to Mexico and drown his sorrows … he could go forward and realize that the sun came up and stay close to what he’d been doing. He’s ready to go.”
Wilcke will wrestle three-time NCAA qualifier Tom Sleigh of Bucknell in Thursday’s first round.
Odds in freshman’s favor
Since Brands’ first NCAA Championships as Iowa’s head coach, 15 freshmen have qualified for the tournament. Five went on to win All-American honors.
Bracket seeding says that ratio could keep up this week, as second-rated Michael Kemerer (157 pounds) is joined by unseeded classmates Joey Gunther (165) and Cash Wilcke (197) in the field.
Kemerer was originally slated to face Kent State’s Casey Sparkman (25-12) in the first round, but the weight class was redrawn on Friday as Michigan’s Brian Murphy dropped out due to injury. Kemerer will now open his first NCAA tournament against Indiana’s Jake Danishek (19-13), who he pinned last month.
Meyer the medic
Alex Meyer wants to go to medical school when his All-American wrestling career is complete. The senior got a head start on homework over the weekend.
Meyer was cut near the corner of his right eye during the Big Ten Championships, requiring two stitches after he wrestled the second of six tournament matches. They were gone on Monday because Meyer says he cut them out by himself.
“I’ve got a steady hand,” Meyer said with a smile.
Iowa's First Round Matches:
125: No. 1 Thomas Gilman, Iowa, 27-0 vs. Brent Fleetwood, Central Michigan, 22-10
133: No. 4 Cory Clark, Iowa, 15-3 vs. Connor Schram, Stanford, 14-4
149: No. 5 Brandon Sorensen, Iowa, 26-4 vs. Matthew Zovistoski, Appalachian State, 26-9
157: No. 2 Michael Kemerer, Iowa, 27-2 vs. Jake Danishek, Indiana, 19-13
165: Joey Gunther, Iowa, 18-8 vs. No. 13 Brandon Womack, Cornell, 30-8
174: No. 11 Alex Meyer, Iowa, 24-7 vs. Austin Dewey, Boise State, 24-13
184: No. 3 Sam Brooks, Iowa, 24-2 vs. Nicholas Gravina, Rutgers, 20-9
197: Cash Wilcke Iowa, 16-11 vs. No. 13 Tom Sleigh, Bucknell, 31-5
141: Topher Carton, Iowa, 24-8 vs. Joshua Heil, Campbell, 15-11